Wednesday 14 May 2008 by Karl James. 15 comments
News

Today is the 63rd anniversary of the sinking of the 2/3rd Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur. On 14 May 1943 Centaur was en route from Sydney to Cairns when she was sunk by a Japanese submarine south of Moreton Island, off the Queensland coast. From the 332 people on board, only 64 survived.

302796 SYDNEY, NSW. 1943. PORT SIDE VIEW OF THE HOSPITAL SHIP CENTAUR. NOTE THE PROMINENT RED CROSSES AND GREEN LINES ON HER HULL. RED CROSSES ARE ALSO ATTACHED TO HER FUNNEL AND STERN WITH ANOTHER LYING HORIZONTALLY ON THE AFTER DECKHOUSE. THE CENTAUR WAS TORPEDOED AND SUNK WITH HEAVY LOSS OF LIFE BY A JAPANESE SUBMARINE ON 1943-05-14. (NAVAL HISTORICAL COLLECTION)

Centaur was a merchant vessel built in Scotland on the Clyde River, and was launched in 1924. She could carry a mixed cargo of passengers and freight, and was employed on a run between Fremantle, Western Australia, and Singapore. When the war began in September 1939, she was placed under the government's control. In November 1941 Centaur was one of the ships used in the search for HMAS Sydney, and found a lifeboat with survivors from the German raider Kormoran. Among the Germans rescued was the Kormoran's captain, Fregattenkapitdn Theodor Detmers.

Following Japan's entry into the war and the subsequent bloody fighting in Papua during 1942, Centaur was converted into a hospital ship with the aim of ferrying patients between Port Moresby and Townsville. Her conversion began in January 1943 and was completed two months later.

P00444.081 SYDNEY, NSW, 1943. THE AUSTRALIAN HOSPITAL SHIP CENTAUR THAT WAS SUNK BY A JAPANESE SUBMARINE OFF THE QUEENSLAND COAST ON 1943-05-14. 268 LIVES WERE LOST, INCLUDING ELEVEN AUSTRALIAN ARMY NURSES. (NAVAL HISTORICAL COLLECTION)

Now the 2/3rd AHS Centaur, the vessel had a fully equipped operating theatre and dental surgery, and could carry 252 patients. She was also clearly marked as a hospital ship. Around her freshly painted white hull a thick green band ran, broken in several places by large red crosses. At night, the vessel was brightly illuminated by powerful spotlights.

Centaur kept her civilian crew, but her medical staff were all members of the army. The men were from the Australian Army Medical Corps and the women were from the Australian Army Nursing Service. Centaur only completed two voyages with patients, before she began her ill-fated third and final voyage.

REL31811 Calico; Paint; A unit banner for the 2/12 Australian Field Ambulance. The banner is made of unbleached calico and is painted at the centre with the Red Cross, on top of which is painted the colour patch of 2/12 Field Ambulance; a horizontal brown oval divided vertically by a grey strip and with a grey border. Painted in blue and silver lettering across the top is, ‘2/12 AUSTRALIAN FIELD AMBULANCE’. Painted around the colour patch in green with red and yellow highlights are the words, ‘DARWIN, TARAKAN, AMBON, LUTONG, TIMOR, LABUAN, MOROTAI, KUCHING and HMAS CENTAUR’. The side seams of the banner are open at the bottom, forming pockets to accept the carrying poles.

In the early afternoon of 12 May Centaur steamed from Sydney for Cairns carrying members of the 2/12th Field Ambulance. Shortly after 4 am on 14 May, while most people were asleep, a torpedo struck Centaur's port side, hitting the oil fuel tank which ignited in a massive explosion. The bridge superstructure collapsed and the funnel crashed onto the deck. Everything was covered with burning oil and a fire quickly began to roar across the ship. Water, meanwhile, rushed in through the gaping hole in her side. Many of those onboard not killed in the explosion or fire, were trapped as the ship started to go down bow first, and then broke in two. In just three minutes Centaur was gone.

The survivors were at sea for a day and half before they were rescued. The ship's crew and medical staff suffered heavily, as did the 2/12th Field Ambulance -178 men, from a total of 193, died. It was the nurses though, who suffered the worst. Of the 12 nurses onboard only one, Sister Nell Savage, survived.

044427 Portrait of NX76584 Nursing Sister Ellen Savage, GM, of Quirindi, NSW, only surviving woman of the sinking of the Hospital Ship Centaur taken some months after the incident.

Although badly hurt herself, Sister Savage concealed her injures and gave what help she could to the other survivors. After sharks circled their raft, and when ships and planes passed without seeing them, a sing-along was organised to help keep up their spirits. For her "conspicuous gallantry" Sister Savage was awarded a George Medal.

The loss of the Centaur deeply shocked Australia, and for many Australians she became a symbol of the determination to win the war. The attack on a clearly marked and illuminated hospital ship was taken as further proof that Australia was fighting against a brutal enemy.

ARTV09088 Depicts the Hospital ship, ‘Centaur’ being attacked by the Japanese off the coast of Queensland, during the Second World War. In the water below the ship are a number of nurses and sailors from the ship. The sinking of H S Centaur took place off the Queensland coast in May 1943 and 286 lives were lost, including 11 out of 12 nurses. The poster depicts moments after the ship was torpedoed; it later sunk.

Read more, including the list of survivors and casualties

Comments

gnomeangel

I never even knew that we had hospital ships. Great article. The inclusion of photos and war posters helps to bring an extra depth to the telling. Job well done, can't wait for more!

eddie

As a Brisbane boy whom swam and fished off the shores off Moreton Island and who cherishes the sacrifices made by the greatest generation, lest we forget

Barry O'Neill

I lost my grandfather on the Centaur and I believe it is time that we found her and made her a War Grave in memory of ALL those lost. It is now time to act so come on Australian Government lets find her. Perhaps the Japanese government should be asked for financial help, after all they are the ones who sunk her.

Bob Meade

There is a memorial flag pole and rose garden to commemorate the nurses lost on Centaur in the ground of the former Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne. It is now part of Austin Health, and may be found by approaching the main building of the Heidelberg campus from Banksia Street, Heidelberg.

Tom

Why was the centaur sunk?

Wendy Bath

My Uncle, Cedric Allan Fowler was one of the 2/12 Field Ambulance members that perished on the Centaur. It is amazing to read about the Centaur and I now know the resting place of my Uncle. Nearly all of our family has now passed away, there remains only myself (his Niece) and 3 great nieces and 3 great nephews.

Madonna

Beautiful post Karl..thank you.I am very happy to see the AHS Centaur has been located in Mr Pashs lifetime.The finding will help bring closure to the descendents of those who lost their lives defending our country, our wartime community and a treasure for our Maritime Archeological Heritage. The discovery means there is more to add to your post now and I look forward to reading the final chapter of her journey from your perspective.

Wendy Bath

My Uncle, Private Cedric Allan Fowler was one of the 2/12 Field Ambulance drivers that perished on the AHS Centaur. I am amazed at all I have read about the Centaur and I thank the search team for their persistence and hard work. It is nice to finally know the resting place of my Uncle. I’m just sorry his sisters and brothers weren’t able to finally say goodbye. I hope I can do that for them at the memorial service. Nearly all of our family has now passed away, and there is only myself (his Niece) and 3 great nieces and 3 great nephews left. I look forward to reading more on the fate of the AHS Centaur and it’s passengers.

Dianne Van Geuns

My dad has told me stories of how he was on one of the rescue ships but as he has now passed whre can i go to get this imformation and he told me he thinks the japanese were really after his ship that was delayed out of Brisbane so does anyone have any information re this. Thanks Dianne

Charlie Skafte

my uncle Len was killed on the centaur, I would like pictures of the persons on the ship .and may they all now rest in peace.

Madonna

My condolences Wendy to you and your family with the profound loss of your Uncle while serving his country. I am personally grateful, as I am sure all Australians are of the ultimate sacrifice made by all the men and women during wartime in service to their country. The images of the AHS Centaur released today after almost 67years are amazing. I hope the memorial service will serve to bring peace and closure for you and all those who have lost loved ones. I'm sure the connection will be very special.

McCruiskeen

Re: Post No.9 from Dianne Van Geuns: The Japanese navy may well have been seeking to attack Ms Geuns' father's ship, but the captain of the submarine that fired the fatal torpedo could not have failed to recognise that the Centaur was a hospital ship, because of the clear, coloured markings and the bright illumination of the vessel. This was a cynical, wanton act of depravity, but probably no worse than a multitude of other depraved acts commited during the war. While both sides were clearly capable of atrocities, the historical record shows that the Imperial Japanese Forces were frequently and particularly, unnecessarily brutal towards military and civilian personnel alike. Their behaviour in China, particularly in Nanking, Singapore and other places in Asia was simply appalling, as was their treatment of prsioners of war. We have all moved on and there has been much water under the bridge since the dark days of WW2, but stark reminders such as this give us an insight into the horrific consequences of one simple word of command, uttered by some one whose motivation is probably beyond our comprehension.

Madonna

I couldn't hold back the tears when Mr Martin Pash shared his experience today at the National Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance of the AHS Centaur. It was a beautiful tribute and moving ceremony...I feel honoured to have been there. ... As the Army bugler played Last Post, I felt it's unique sound and last military call would have travelled acoss the ocean to the reach the AHS Centaur. R.I.P

Glenn

Dr James, Before my father died he told me some facts about the Centaur before if left Sydney bound for Brisbane. I would be happy to discuss. It may change some thinking.

Richard Jones

I lost my uncle and godfather, Maj Gordon Jones, on 2/3 AHS Centaur. He was a doctor with the 2/12 Field Ambulance travelling to Cairns to disembark and go to camp on the Atherton Tablelands. Eventually he was to have gone to New Guinea attached to one of the 6th, 7th or 9th Divisions. The 2/12 Field Ambulance was virtually wiped out in this single event of the sinking of Centaur. Only a few months beforehand they had been in Darwin during the bombing there while attached to the 8th division. My father Sir Keith Jones, now in his 99th year, also a doctor and Gordon's brother was going to the Atherton Tablelands as DADMS to the Headquarters of the 2nd Australian Corps at the same time. My father was offered a berth on AHS Centaur to travel north from Sydney but declined and went instead by train expecting to link up with his brother at Atherton. He was on the train heading north when he heard of the sinking of Centaur and eventually that his brother did not survive. My father is extremely thankful that Centaur has been positively located after all these years. I proudly represented him at the At-Sea Memorial Service held on HMAS Manoora, 24 September 2010. By coincidence in 1943, it was the previous HMAS Manoora, a passenger ship that had been converted to a troop carrier, that eventually took him to Finschhaven New Guinea. Thank you to those who have contributed to the location of 2/3 AHS Centaur at last and to those who organised and conducted the extraordinary Services of Thanksgiving and Remembrance held at St John's Cathedral, Brisbane in March this year and at sea over 2/3 AHS Centaur on HMAS Manoora just two weeks ago. I can only endorse the words of McCruiskeen (12. above).